We Have Lost a Giant: Richard John Neuhaus R.I.P.

Droll of wit, upright of character, lover of Christ.

As First Things Editor Joseph Bottum wrote: “My tears are not for him—for he knew, all his life, that his Redeemer lives, and he has now been gathered by the Lord in whom he trusted. I weep, rather for all the rest of us.”

Our loss is truly great for a truly great champion of freedom, justice, and life has passed. His work as public intellectual was summed up thus by John Podhoretz editor of COMMENTARY:

Richard John Neuhaus, perhaps the most important and influential religious intellectual in the United States since the passing of Reinhold Niebuhr, died last night. A Canadian by birth, he was a Lutheran pastor who came to the United States and served as the minister of a congregation in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. A liberal in the model of Niebuhr, Neuhaus found himself migrating rightward once the Supreme Court inaugurated the age of abortion on demand with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1972. In 1984, he wrote the book for which he will be remembered, The Naked Public Square — a concise masterpiece about the role of religion in a democracy and the danger posed to a democratic society in the notion that public life should be effectively atheistic.

…[H]e completed his own religious journey when he converted to Catholicism and became a priest of the church and an intimate of Pope John Paul II.

…[I]n the end, his work was his life, and whether he was ministering to fatherless youths in Brooklyn or offering his considered and always highly informed opinion on the matter of stem-cell research, Richard John Neuhaus did what he did and said what he said for the betterment of humankind and for the greater glory of God.

This timeline of major events in his life shows why his influence was so great, his interests so broad, and his friendships so deep:

1936: Neuhaus was born and raised in Pembroke, Ottawa, Canada, one of eight children. His father, an American, was a Missouri Synod Lutheran minister.1950: Neuhaus leaves home at the age of 14.

1960: Ordained as a Lutheran pastor, Neuhaus served in the 60s as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church, a largely black congregation in Brooklyn. He was a self-described “revolutionary,” protesting the Vietnam War and advocating for other progressive causes.

1973: The Roe v. Wade decision causes Neuhaus to abandon his political liberalism activism in order to become a conservative.

1984: Co-founds and becomes the first director of the Rockford Institute’s Center on Religion and Society. Publishes his book, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

1988: US News & World Report’s survey lists him as as one of the 32 most influential intellectuals in America.

1990: 30 years after becoming a Lutheran pastor, Neuhaus converts to Catholicism at the age of 54. He was ordained as a priest a year later. (Here’s a letter to Lutherans explaining his conversion, and here’s an autobiographical essay he published in First Things, originally delivered at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.)

1990: Neuhaus founds First Things–an ecumenical journal, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, “whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”

1994-1995: Neuhaus publishes the controversial document he co-edited with Chuck Colson entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

2005: Time Magazine names Neuhaus one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” (even though he is not an evangelical).

In addition to these public events, Fr. Neuhaus was privately an advisor to President Bush on life issues.

We imagine him welcomed by his friend Avery Cardinal Dulles far from this vale of tears where we all hope to arrive someday. To be bereft of them both in so short a span of time magnifies our loss. God, in your love for us, raise up for us more men in this mold.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Warren Jewell

    Heaven does seem to be in a canonizing mood . . .

    Forget not to note: RJN was beloved of God’s children, beloved to many of us.

    “. . . I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped.

    And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away;
    blessed be the name of the LORD

  • Pingback: Fr. Neuhaus is gone « Precious Feet()

  • Warren Jewell

    To respond to my own self, I note that in reading tributes and farewells for RJN, I miss him the less for all the love that still flows from being of his friends, associates, readers, etc.

    His final gift was as his usual – his love.

    In that, he will find great pleasure with our God Who found great glory of pleasure in the man’s pilgrimage.